Tandems 101

Why a tandem?

by William Hamilton (proprietor of Beach Road Cycles)

Now you can keep up!

You ride too fast.

No, you ride too slowly.

On a tandem, both riders are forced to pedal at the same speed, but not with the same force. This means that each rider contributes according to his ability, while the bike is propelled by the sum of their efforts. The front rider operates all the controls.

Like dancing together

Tandem partners work together and subtly feel each other's movements. This intimate, yet innocent, sensation was once described by a British journalist as being like dancing together.

A tandem ride is a great first date.

Power/wind resistance

Two people are stronger than one. Tandems generally have only two wheels and seat the rear rider in the wake of the front one. This means than rolling and wind resistance aren't much greater than on a solo bike. The result is that a tandem will go noticeably faster than any solo bike on the flat or downhill. Uphill, a tandem has the weight and power of two solo cyclists and so goes about as fast as a solo.

For these reasons, wide range gearing and powerful braking are critically important to tandem riding.

Is tandem riding for me?

Fun on a tandem comes from teamwork more than great athletic talent. Tandems generally handle better if the heavier rider is at the front. This is why most tandems have a taller, longer cockpit on the front. Tandems tend to be extremely adjustable for riding position, but problems may occur if the front rider is very short or the rear one very tall. Another extreme occurs when a parent rides with a child on the back. Both these problems can often be overcome.

I enjoy tandem riding, but not everyone does. My best rides have been with partners who are enthusiastic and arranged heavy front, light rear. My worst rides have been with a really heavy rear rider and with a rear rider who wanted to be in charge.

Hire one first

The surest way of learning about tandems is to ride one. I strongly suggest that you hire or borrow a tandem for extended rides before considering buying one. There are businesses in most major cities offering tandem hire. Some shops deduct their hire fees from a subsequent purchase,

Today's tandems whip anything in the past!

The coming of mountain bikes

Mountain bike technology has revolutionised tandems. For the first time stiff, strong framesets, powerful brakes, strong wheels and reliable, wide range gearing systems have been made in large numbers at low cost. For nearly a century, tandems suffered from fragile, flexible frames, forks and wheels, poor braking and poor gear systems. Even the expensive, custom made ones were generally awful. Mountain biking, particular downhill racing, has changed all this.

Standardisation saves money, specialisation costs money

Modern MTB tandems are excellent value because they use standard parts. Road racing and custom tandems need many specially made parts, which much more without noticeable improvements in performance. (In the case of KHS, a road racing tandem costs about $1000 more than the equivalent MTB.) My recommendation is to buy a stock MTB tandem and modify it to your needs.

Should it be like my solo bike?

Not necessarily. Tandems need to be rugged to support two people on one bike. Generally, a tandem should be one step in strength from your solo bike. In other words, a tandem made from cross country MTB parts would suit a couple who ride solo touring bikes; a tandem with hardcore downhill MTB parts would be suitable for cross country mountain biking and so on.

The front cockpit of a tandem will give the same riding position as a solo bike. The rear cockpit will often have a shorter reach to the handlebars.

A good tandem weighs about as much as two professional racing bikes. Always choose strength over weight in a tandem.

What's out there?

Entry level

The cheapest new tandems worth having are the Pegasus Brumby at $940 or the Raleigh Companion at $999. Both have simple, robust aluminium frames with a 24-speed mountain-bike based drivetrain.

Something better

More money (say $1300 - $3000) will buy some important improvements. Frames will be better quality, with better compromises between strength and weight. Brakes will be more powerful and much more durable. Gears will be more numerous and much more reliable and durable. Chainrings at this level will be individually replaceable. MTB tandems at this level will be the same basic silhouette as cheaper ones, but work better.

Some things to consider...
  • The cheapest road racing tandems start around $3000.

  • Mass produced American made tandems start around $4500.

  • My favourite in this price range is the Beach Road Cycles Duet II at $3500. It has a sophisticated alloy frame with custom geometry, tough touring wheels, hydraulic disc brakes and a 30-speed Shimano Ultegra drivetrain.
  • Disc brakes and suspension forks are also available. Disc brakes are advantageous on long descents, being able to run very hot without that heat reaching & damaging the tyres. If your budget doesn't cover really good disc brakes, V brakes are actually better. The Schwinn Voyageur at $1599 is the cheapest tandem with worthwhile disc brakes
  • Tandems have enough weight & speed to make suspension forks function properly on the road. On a solo bike, suspension serves no purpose except at high speeds or on big bumps.

Fantasies

The USA is the centre of tandem technology. Specialists such as Da Vinci, Co-Motion, Burley and Santana are at the leading edge of innovation - at a price. More isn't always better. The best and most disappointing tandems I have ever seen were in the $10,000 to $13,000 range.

Special needs

The roles of each rider on a tandem are very different, allowing a wider range of people to ride. The rear rider doesn't usually operate any of the controls, thus allowing a person who is blind, has poor balance or is intellectually disabled accompany an experienced front rider.

Tandems are usually ridden by a pair of adults. Some bikes, such as the Raleigh Companion & Schwinn Voyageur, can be arranged so that child of six can ride with an adult.

Second hand

Good used tandems are rare, but do exist. Tandems have improved so spectacularly in the last few years that old ones are often of poor quality or no cheaper than a superior new one. We sell off our hire tandems at around a year old, but are rarely offered used tandems as trade-ins.


Our current tandem range (updated February 2013)

Raleigh Companion $999

We sometimes have second-hand tandems - give us a call to see what we've got! (03 9592 9100)